(from Jewish Holiday Cooking: A Food Lover’s Treasury of Classics and Improvisations, by Jayne Cohen, available in print and e-book formats)
Bread has always been the heart of the Jewish meal. When the benediction over the bread is made, it is unnecessary to recite prayers over any of the other foods eaten.
The exception is the Kiddush, the blessing chanted over wine that introduces every Sabbath and important holiday. At these times the challah is covered with a white cloth, some say to protect it from embarrassment at seeing the wine blessed first.
The two uncut loaves of challah on the Sabbath table echo the double portion of manna God provided to the wandering Israelites before each weekly Sabbath. The seeds usually sprinkled on the braided breads before baking symbolize the manna enveloped with dew to keep it fresh-tasting for the following day.
For Rosh Hashanah, I like to make the bread extra fragrant with one of the seasonings suggested in the Cook’s Note. A bit of cinnamon tastes especially lovely when the challah is dipped into a fine honey at the beginning of the meal.
“When you bake your own challahs for the Sabbath, they have a different taste entirely. Your heart rises as you watch the loaves rise in the pan.”--Chaim Grade, My Mother’s Sabbath Days
Though he lived to be 94, my grandfather never tasted an ice cream that could match the ones he remembered buying from the old Turkish vendor back in Minsk or Smolensk before he arrived in New York at age 12.
He taught me a valuable food lesson: our most cherished food memories inevitably lead to disappointment. Perhaps that is because our culinary selves are constantly evolving--we taste the world with a different tongue at various times in our lives. Or maybe no real food could ever live up to one garnished with the patina of memory, seasoned with age.
For me, with Ratner’s oniony egg rolls, it was a little of both. In the years since the demise of the beloved dairy restaurant on Delancey Street on the Lower East Side, I’ve tasted many versions of the rolls, some purportedly made exactly according to the recipe published in The World-Famous Ratner’s Meatless Cookbook. None excited the way the oniony little breads, smeared with cold sweet butter, did.
To paraphrase, the fault was not with the rolls, but with me that they were underlings. What I was after was far more oniony and buttery-tasting than the rolls had ever been.
My good friend Mary McLarnon, a consummate baker, had never tasted Ratner’s onion rolls, but as I explained the taste memories that I wanted the challah in my book, Jewish Holiday Cooking, to channel (challah and Jewish egg rolls are often made from the same rich dough), her blue eyes lit up. Since the bread had to be pareve, we talked about doing a triple rise to achieve the butteriness. A few days later, Mary dropped off two fragrant loaves for us to taste.
Not satisfied, Mary kept working on ways to boost the onion flavor until it tasted as incredibly aromatic as it smelled. The touch of cumin, reminiscent of Alsatian-Jewish bakeries, somehow made it more buttery.
Finally Mary brought another two loaves to taste. There were five of us that night, and we polished off every crumb.
It wasn’t Ratner’s onion roll. It was better.
I confess that I am spoiled these days when it comes to challah: I can purchase terrific exemplars just a few blocks from my house. Hot Bread Kitchens makes a scrumptious whole wheat challah. And Breads Bakery, an outpost of the fabulous Tel Aviv bakery, Lehamim, recently opened in Union Square. There, Uri Scheft’s festive challah—each section sprinkled with a different kind of seed—is shaped like a ring. It looks like a gorgeous royal crown, and the space in the center would be perfect to hold a little bowl of Rosh Hashanah honey.
Still, as Chaim Grade’s mother says in the excerpt from My Mother’s Sabbath Days above, it is always special to make your own, whether for Rosh Hashanah or Shabbat. So here are my favorite recipes, including Mary’s Onion Challah.
Yield: 2 medium loaves
- 2 envelopes (1/4 ounce each) active dry yeast
- 1/4 cup sugar plus 1 teaspoon
- 1/4 cup mild olive, avocado, or other favorite mild oil plus additional for greasing the bowl, plastic wrap, and baking sheet
- 2 large eggs
- 2 teaspoons table salt (not coarse salt)
- 4 to 5 cups bread flour plus additional for dusting the work surface, kneading and shaping the dough
For the Topping
- 1 large egg lightly beaten with 1 teaspoon water
- Poppy or sesame seeds (optional)
Have all ingredients, except topping, at room temperature.
Pour 1 cup warm water (100 to 110 degrees F) into a food processor fitted with a steel blade. Sprinkle the yeast over the water and add 1 teaspoon of the sugar. Allow the mixture to dissolve and proof, 5 to 10 minutes.
Add the remaining 1/4 cup sugar, the oil, eggs, and salt to the yeast mixture. Pulse for a few moments to combine. Add the flour, 1 cup at a time, pulsing briefly after each addition. After you’ve added 4 cups, process briefly until the dough forms a ball around the blade. (If the dough seems too moist, add additional flour in small increments through the feed tube until the sides of the processor bowl are clean but the dough still appears to be a little sticky.) Continue processing for 2 to 3 more minutes to knead the dough until it is smooth and elastic.
Form the dough into a ball and place it in a greased bowl. Cover with greased plastic wrap. Allow the dough to rise in a warm, draft-free place until double in bulk, 2 to 3 hours. (Or start the bread the day before you plan to bake it and let the dough rise slowly overnight in the refrigerator. Allow it to come back to room temperature before proceeding.) To test whether the bread has fully risen, gently press it with a fingertip. If the indentation remains, the dough has risen sufficiently.
Punch the dough down, then let it rise a second time until double in bulk, about 2 hours.
Punch the dough down again and divide it into six equal pieces. Using your palms, roll the pieces into identical ropes about 10 inches long. Braid the ropes into two loaves, using three ropes for each loaf. An easy way to do this evenly is to start the braid in the middle, braid to one end, then turn the loaf upside down and braid to the other end. Turn the ends under and press down to keep them joined together.
Transfer to a greased baking sheet. Apply the first coat of egg wash (reserve the rest), brushing it all over. Cover with greased plastic wrap and allow to rise for a third time until double in bulk, about 1 hour.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Mix about 2 tablespoons of poppy or sesame seeds, if using, into the remaining egg wash. (If omitting seeds, apply the second egg wash glaze plain.) When the loaves have risen, brush the glaze over the top. Bake about 35 minutes on the middle rack, until the loaves are golden brown and sound hollow when tapped on the bottom. Transfer to a rack and let cool, or remove from the baking sheet and place directly on the oven rack to cool in the oven with the door left ajar.
Cook’s Note: You can flavor the bread with ground spices, such as cinnamon or cardamom (about 2 teaspoons); fresh herbs such as chopped dill (up to 1/4 cup) or rosemary (no more than 3 tablespoons); or a hint of tarragon paired, perhaps, with aniseed or fennel seeds sprinkled on top instead of poppy seeds. Add the spices or herbs when you add the oil, etc., to the yeast. Another tasty variation: sprinkle lightly with coarse salt instead of, or in addition to, the seeds.